PASADENA, Calif. — Matt Boermeester kicked his third field goal of the game, a 46-yarder, on the final play Monday to give Southern California a 52-49 victory over Penn State in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever.
Penn State, which spotted the Trojans a 13-0 lead early, seemed to have the game well in hand going into the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead after scoring touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions.
But the Nittany Lions grew conservative on offense, couldn’t stop the Trojans’ passing game, and finally a third-down interception thrown by Trace McSorley put USC, which had no time outs remaining, in position to kick the winning field goal in the final half-minute.
Sam Darnold, the Trojans’ freshman quarterback, completed 33 of 53 passes for 453 yards and five touchdowns. McSorley threw four touchdown passes but also threw three interceptions — two early and the killing one late — after throwing just two interceptions in his last eight games.
Until the final few minutes, it looked like Penn State, which came from at least 10 points behind in four victories this year, including the Big Ten championship game, would add an exclamation point to its come-from-behind season.
Instead, the Lions, whose nine-game winning streak was ended and finished 11-3, made only one first down on four possessions and netted only 14 yards on offense in the fourth quarter.
Southern California (10-3), which finished the season with nine consecutive victories, began its comeback from a 49-35 deficit at its own 17-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The comeback began with a fluke — an apparently overthrown pass sailed past a receiver to Julu Smith-Schuster for a 12-yard gain on third-and-6 at the USC 21-yard line.
Seven plays later, Ronald Jones scored on a 3-yard run.
After an exchange of punts, Penn State tried running out the clock but couldn’t. After five straight running plays forced USC to exhaust its time outs, the Nittany Lions had to punt and the Trojans, getting the ball at their own 20 with 1:59 remaining, required only three plays — plus a pair of pass interference penalties — to tie the game at 49 on Darnold’s fifth TD pass, a 27-yarder to Deonta Burnett.
It was Burnett’s third touchdown catch of the game.
There was 1:09 remaining when Penn State got the ball for the final time. After Saquon Barkley was stopped on a 1-yard running play, McSorley threw a deep pass for tight end Mike Gesicki that appeared headed for an interception until Leon McQuay dropped it.
But McQuay got another chance on the next play and did not drop it, intercepting McSorley’s third-down heave and returning it 32 yards along the sideline to set up the winning field goal.
McSorley completed 18 of 29 passes for 254 yards. Chris Godwin caught 9 for 197, but none in the fourth quarter, and two touchdowns. Barkley rushed for 194 yards on 25 carries and scored three touchdowns.
–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.